Wednesday 22 March 2017

Winning Brands Will Own Customer Journeys

Winning Brands Will Own Customer Journeys

Neil Vose, recent import from London to start-up Quirk in Durban, was asked how South African digital agencies differ from their peers internationally.

He is impressed by the depth of talent in South Africa, but says that companies need to consider digital as more than just an add-on. It’s not about web-site design and marketing a Facebook page, but understanding it’s a new economy with new challenges:

“Your digital strategy should solve business problems. It’s not about the tools; these are freely available, what is needed is to instil a culture of exploration and ideation”.

Neil believes both clients and agencies need to change. Clients need the agencies to demonstrate their expertise and commitment, from investing in heavy-weights on the creative side who can produce big-hitting content pieces, to ensuring they have great data analysis capabilities – which must include team-members who  understand consumer behaviour as well as digital data and analytics.

Companies need to think big, in terms of step-change, and ensure their products and services will still have resonance to customers in the future. However, in South Africa, there’s a sense that the bottom-line is currently healthy, so what’s the issue?

The problem is, new digital and content platforms are driving structural industry change. The iPod and iTunes fundamentally changed the music industry; AirBnB is eating the lunch of the big hotel groups; Uber is transforming taxi services. Companies must anticipate that disruptive new entrants will be able to undermine their current business model, and therefore, must seek to strategise and innovate now.  

Neil’s sense of urgency is palpable: “The business revolution is sooner than we think. Companies need a clear articulation of what digital means to them, their employees and customers. Companies need to set the vision, set the road map, and cascade from there. Marketing is only one aspect of the strategy, it’s not just about demand generation but also about customer service, fulfilment, distribution, and the employee value proposition, amongst others. There need to be key milestones to deciding on a future investment or not. Above all, companies need to be clear about : What are we really selling? How can we engage with people more effectively on a more frequent basis to ensure brand loyalty? While  digital and content can enable ongoing positive relationships with customers, agencies need to go beyond that and become true partners in this process.”

The problem is that this requires a cultural business shift, but at the same time peoples’ behaviours are already changing, driven largely by digital.  With South Africa on the brink of a far greater smartphone penetration, and with a large, young population, companies need to become ready for the future and have a plan. Embracing digital is not about making incremental changes, but about fundamental step-change.

Of course companies must have pride in their current products, but they must also be unafraid to test and learn, be prepared to attain a different level of insight through immersive experiences, and be willing to explore, in detail, what customers need by engaging directly with their journeys. Although strategy must be led by the customer experience, any decisions must be backed up by hard-core data.  Finally, brands need to focus on transformation through understanding that currently, products and services are not evolving in an incremental manner, but that revolutionary step-change is occurring.

As in London, South African agencies need to be given a proper mandate with sufficient time and enough money to make it happen so they can invest in creating small, specialist, but highly diverse mixes of people with the right skill-sets, from technologists, sociologists, psychologists, writers and marketers to economists. These teams must be tasked with coming up with new products and innovations based on an intimate, granular understanding of the customer journey.

Neil hasn’t come across many companies in South Africa undertaking many different trials of different concepts, then scaling the most successful. Instead, many of the new agencies in South Africa sell packages such as social media services, or inexpensive,  agile web-building, or content creation. There’s nothing wrong with what they are doing, but digital strategy can’t be about a one-off project, but about truly understanding the customer journey. So, it’s not just about using a social tool like BrandsEye, which is fantastic, but which talks to the here-and-now, and is used tactically, but over and above that, to ask big questions relating to what the big change opportunities are.

Neil would look to see agencies employing discrete, small, targeted budgets – especially with mobile budgets, learning from them what works and doesn’t, and only then take these to scale.  Walmart and Marks and Spencer, for instance,have created Innovation Labs that are stand-alone with a profit-and-loss.

 In terms of the mistakes he sees South Africans make, he feels that, “People get carried away by fads. Whether it’s Facebook, Snapchat, Wechat, Whatsapp or MXit – using any or all of them may be good from a tactical perspective, but what is the strategic intent? South Africans are investing piecemeal in digital, and not asking themselves: What is the business driver for digital investment?”

He also feels that there needs to be more collaboration within the sector: “The future lies in partnering – recognising where good people are and what they do and where you need to partner with them” and he feels strongly that South Africans could work together more effectively at a sector-wide level. In fact, partners can extend to the customers themselves, HSBC’s Innovation Lab is firmly focused on customers.

While South Africans are providing great value in terms of demand generation, storytelling, brand perception and ensuring share of voice and sales, where the digital space needs to move is to value creation and an increasing focus on what services will be driven by digital – ecommerce, biometrics in retail banking, call in services. The key question must be: “How do we create ongoing value for brands and businesses through digital services?”

Brands want to work with agencies that will help them build a sustainable business; that’s the other revolution, sustainability is important and it’s not just about the sale any more. Of course, sales are necessary, but not sufficient - we have to look to the future, to what are the right products and services, going forward. There is a huge opportunity for both great product creation and developing great services. Digital agencies must think holistically, in terms of what drives human interaction. Marketing has always been a combination of art and science, but we are increasingly seeing hard-core human behavioural science being brought into the mix. Those brands that learn how to own customer journeys will remain or become tomorrow’s winning brands.

Originally published at The Marketing Site.

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